Irina: Take time to enjoy and recognize your successes — as founders, we tend to quickly dust away an achievement and focus on the next goal, but equally being mindful and acknowledging the successes is important for oneself as well as the team.
Maria: Being a founder can feel lonely and exhausting, stay grounded and take people who care about you along the journey.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Irina Albita and Maria Tanjala from FilmChain.
Maria Tanjala, a UK-based producer passionate about tech solutions that bring transparency and automation to creative industries, and Irina Albita, a technologist with a background in mathematics and computer science are the co-founders of FilmChain — the entertainment industry fintech that collects revenues and pays production stakeholders transparently and automatically, leveraging a private Ethereum blockchain ledger.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Irina: I have always been a film buff, consuming endless tv content with my father, or heading to the local cinema in my hometown Bucharest, but I never thought I would end up in the film and tv industry. I loved maths and computer science and during my studies, pursued maths Olympics and science competitions with zeal. While studying a master’s degree in management, organizations, and governance at the London School of Economics, I founded my first startup, a travel marketplace for local experiences called 4Tripsters with my class-mate and friend Andrey Davidov. It was an incredible experience to build a team, a tech platform and gain users all in the heart of the London tech scene, but after 2 years the company came to an end. I knew at that point that building a great company with significant impact is what I wanted to do and I had learned my childhood friend Maria, an established producer on the UK scene, was interested to embark on the same journey. I was following Maria’s career and spoke at length about some of the challenges she was experiencing everyday as a producer. Our brainstorms led us to co-found Big Couch, a fintech startup in the entertainment industry that enabled independent filmmakers and video content creators to invest in projects they work on through a funding mechanism we named “crewfunding.” We recognized that the opportunity of payments and reporting is much bigger across the industry, which led us to pivot to what is right now FilmChain. FilmChain’s mission is to transform traditionally slow and opaque recoupments by empowering the industry with transparency and data.
After graduating my MA in Filmmaking, I have forged my path in film and TV production with numerous jobs for Channel 5, History Channel and the BBC as well as independent feature films. Acquiring a deep understanding of the film and TV industries, in 2014, I have set on an entrepreneurial journey alongside my long time friend Irina Albita after we have been selected for the SIRIUS programme sponsored by UK Trade and Investment. We were both excited about finding solutions to an industry we loved that has many old ways, inefficiencies and roadblocks. My industry knowledge and Irina’s amazing entrepreneurial background and CFO experience were a perfect match. After we innovated with Big Couch, we were awarded a substantial innovation grant for developing FilmChain, in a collaboration with Imperial College. Sitting at the forefront of innovation and technology is not a personal ambition but a true commitment to improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of filmmakers and industry professionals who need a sustainable industry.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Irina: Maria and I discussed from the beginning that we wanted to weave in our company’s culture DNA adaptability and deliberately pursue serendipity. Therefore, pivoting the company from our initial business idea to FilmChain was one of the experiences that I perceive as significant and that gave us both an incredible boost of confidence that as leaders we can steer FilmChain’s destiny in the right direction. We entered a startup competition in 2017 in London, where an Uber car picked us up from our office and in the car was an expert or investor to whom we could pitch anything — this was our opportunity to pitch and validate our carefully debated idea of a payments company. We happened to pitch to the Chief Innovation Officer of one the Big Four who just returned from a trip to NYC to attend the biggest global blockchain conference. This conversation validated several of our assumptions and although a short cab ride it gave us the confidence to convince our team and investors that the pivot was the right thing to do.
For me there were significant moments to meet my industry “idols” and have the chance to speak with them about future collaborations. I have always loved cinema and have followed directors, producers, writers, cinematographers who have shaped my world at a young age. Later, with our companies, having the chance to sit down with these amazing professionals and discuss their projects, how we can improve and help their workflow, moved me deeply and it’s a feeling I’ll never forget.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Irina: Film markets and festivals are significant business and networking opportunities for our industry. The first one I attended was the Cannes Film Festival. Hopping from one meeting to another, keeping a tight schedule and finding any 7 am opportunity to catch a movie premiere before work it was an exciting experience for me as an industry outsider. Maria spoke the whole trip that one of her favourite directors Werner Herzog was attending the festival but could not locate him. I happened to network one evening at an industry event with a gentleman, talk about technology, life in London, cultural events to only find out the next day that it was Werner Herzog all along. The team was highly amused and it taught me that fighting through the imposter syndrome in such circumstances is so important — taking every experience as a learning opportunity.
I remember we were trying to get in touch with a producer who we respected and were keen on getting his feedback. We were in the first months of existence with Big Couch, just weeks after we started the SIRIUS programme sponsored by UK Trade & Investment. We set up a short call with this industry “heavy” and he asked us when it would be a good time to meet. I jumped off my chair and I said (with our Google calendar in front of our eyes) that we have “nothing scheduled that week. Nothing. Or the week after. For him, we’re free anytime”.Both him and Irina Albita giggled loudly. I later learned that people always try to look “busy” and pretend they have to navigate complex schedules even if that’s not necessarily true. To this day, I think he appreciated my honesty, although goofy. He later became a trusted mentor.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Irina: My entrepreneur parents shaped me deeply into who I am today — seeing their 180 degrees career change from mechanical engineers to retailer entrepreneurs to this date inspires me. Another person that had a deep influence on me was one of my professors Christopher Barnatt at Nottingham University, a futurist and Associate Professor of Strategy & Future Studies. His mentorship in my formative years at university opened my appetite even further to technology and subjects that I remain passionate about 3D Printing, Nanotechnology and AI.
There’s a great list of people to whom I am wholeheartedly grateful. I took inspiration from strong women who have vertically stood up, spoke their mind, forged their path and were unapologetically authentic in often male-dominated worlds. Seeing them be brave, kind and honest prompted me to take ownership of my journey.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Irina: I have mentored an incredible group of computer science master students part of a programme called Cronian Academy in my hometown Bucharest. Many of the brilliant women studying did not ever consider starting a business — the lack of role models for them was striking, they could not identify themselves with successful female entrepreneurs in the tech field. Most of them were pursuing employment opportunities at reputable firms, but did not even consider the possibility of a business.
In my view, it all boils down to family, education and society. It’s the parents, the teachers and the overall pressure to accept a matrix that conditions girls, and later women, to behave in certain ways and accept limitations that knockdown their confidence — the confidence to build businesses, teams or highly ambitious careers.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Irina: As individuals, we need to be advocates for women in all walks of life and particularly encourage young women to take career risks. Women that are entrepreneurs or in a power position, have a responsibility to mentor and be role models for younger generations. Maria and I had the opportunity with FilmChain to be financially backed and become part of the HearstLab community that invests in women-led startups innovating across a multitude of sectors. Its mission to close the gap in VC funding for women by helping founders build sustainable and highly scalable businesses was an incredible boost for us.
I think the entire education system should be reformed and principles of gender equality should become the pillars of the new system. It is truly heartbreaking to see how the pandemic regressed women in their workplace by decades. Too many couples had to choose which partner sacrifices their career and stays home with the kids, either homeschooling or nannying and based on income and societal pressures, these were vastly women. After it’s safe for restrictions to be lifted around the world, awareness campaigns must help women reintegrate in their old workplaces or start new ventures.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Irina: As female founders, we have been successful in identifying top talent regardless of gender or background across all areas of the company — technical roles, business development roles etc. Besides true grit and perseverance, I believe we bring empathy to the way we manage and grow the team that allows for meaningful company interaction, particularly in such difficult times.
In my view, great founders should possess the professional skills to take an idea from inception to IPO and to be able to lead. Aside from professionalism that is gender-neutral, I believe that women tend to nurture empathy and humanist principles, which add a great bonus to leadership.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?
Irina: I would say don’t be too quick to rule yourself out as a company founder. We often hear someone has the right academic credentials, is a technical CEO, or has a larger-than-life personality, but my experience has been that none of that is critical for a successful founder. Discipline, consistency and adaptability are significantly more important, regardless of the background or skills you have.
Maria: I have attended some insightful conversations about the age of founders and how it’s perceived around the world. As a European founder, I found that being under 30 has been detrimental in some conversations where my capabilities were questioned due to “lack of white hair”. Nevertheless, female friends in San Francisco have opened up about being considered “too old” due to a wave of very young founders or co-founders who have set up a trend. Now at 33, I strongly feel that age shouldn’t be an added pressure and constraint. When something feels right, benchmarking with trends relevant only to geographies, is completely pointless.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
Irina: I believe everyone can be a founder and I always encourage particularly through my mentoring work female students to go out and start companies — the best time to start is now. There are a few specific traits that I recognize in successful founders such as being comfortable with the unknown and self-discipline. But equally I have met founders of so many different personalities and backgrounds that all successfully inspire in their line of work.
I love this question because I don’t have the answer to it. Sometimes, I feel that people split into categories, other times people amaze me by completely outgrowing their boxes. I have heard people say that they see their strength in being “facilitators” rather than “initiators”. Yet, later down the line, they were so passionate about a solution that they became founders and great ones too. Nevertheless, founders have the responsibility to further themselves as better leaders, to care about their team, actively listen, challenge their fears, as well as biases.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Irina: 1. Take time to enjoy and recognize your successes — as founders, we tend to quickly dust away an achievement and focus on the next goal, but equally being mindful and acknowledging the successes is important for oneself as well as the team. 2. As a team grows rapidly, overcommunicate. Particularly in times like these where we are working remotely it is important to realise as leaders that messages do not travel unless you communicate consistently, clearly and often. It is the only way a cohesive company culture can be created. Whenever in doubt as a founder, it is best to overcommunicate decisions, your vision, and your plans.
Maria: 1. Looking back, I would have spent my time slightly differently in the early days — learning to prioritize and respect my own time is something that I currently feel strongly about. 2. Learn to give kinder feedback. Moving from running a film set to founding a team came with some adjustments. 3. Being a founder can feel lonely and exhausting, stay grounded and take people who care about you along the journey. You blink and before you had the chance to process it — you’re flying around the world, you’re the best salesperson you can be, a therapist for your team, a strict accountant for your bank account. All of these take a lot of energy and very few people understand the pressure. A co-founder helps immensely but when you don’t want to burden them, having a mentor or a friend to help you take things off your chest, makes life much better.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Irina: Maria and I have been highly proactive from the early days to give back to the film and tv community and support in upskilling industry professionals when it comes to tech tools and digitization. We have organized educational workshops alongside universities or industry associations and organized events and talks at film markets and festivals in Europe and North America.
Maria: Adding to Irina’s answer that is spot on, we both have the mantra to discover people’s strengths and build up on their confidence so that they can achieve anything they set their minds and hearts on. Simply put, too often, in all environments, people are being put down instead of being built up. Understanding our peers’ roadblocks and helping them surpass them is something that anyone can do.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Irina: Try to cultivate serendipity in your life! Particularly in times like these that force us to stay apart, I was inspired by a book written by my friend Christian Busch, The Serendipity Mindset, to approach virtual interactions with intention. When a colleague asks how you are doing, avoid just saying that you are fine, but rather provide them with some potential touchpoints for engagement: share an idea, detail some plans you have, a book you read, etc.
Maria: I would start a cinema movement to regularly watch a selection of films/ TV series from cultures we’ve never experienced before. Broadening horizons, and experiencing the depth of customs, family values and other anthropological aspects would help us all appreciate the gorgeous diversity of thought and its significance.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Irina: I’ve been an incredible fan of Reese Witherspoon’s career and her entrepreneurial success at Hello Sunshine, the media company she founded. She is a true example of someone who saw something broken in the industry — no stories portraying women in the real way they should — and went out and carved her own destiny and journey. In the process, she built one of the most influential production companies of our times. She is an inspiration for me as an entrepreneur.
Maria: I am in awe of Natalie Portman. Her values, her career choices, her strength and her determination to give a voice to the unheard are very much aligned with my vision of an accomplished individual.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
This series was inspired by Female Founders First, a program by Barclays and Techstars designed to provide female founders with resources to grow, scale and advance their businesses.